I recently finished an honest, compelling and disturbing novel about France’s involvement in the Holocaust: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. In 1942, the French police went door-to-door in the Marais, arresting families in the middle of the night.
It is the story of a Jewish family and of their quest to survive, the only one who does is Sarah, a young girl who escapes from one of the camps and is taken in by a nearby farmer who raised her until she was an adult. In order to save her little brother when the police came to take her family away, she locked him in a bedroom cupboard, their ‘secret’ hiding place, promising to come back for him as soon as they are released.
Of course, she doesn’t come back until too late, and by then, he is dead in the cupboard, after which a new family had moved into their home, not realizing that a dead boy was still in the room.
Shockingly authentic and raw to the core, the book takes you on a frightening and sad journey of courage and triumph. The other main character is Julia Jarmond, an American author living in Paris and working for a magazine. After she is assigned to investigate the round-up as part of the magazine’s anniversary coverage, certain facts come back to haunt her. She discovers who the family was who lived in her husband’s family’s house, who of course is French.
Obsessed with tracking down any known information about this family and in particular about Sarah, the little girl, she is set on a path that opens up old wounds, both of her husband’s parents and of the family who raised Sarah in the countryside. Her parents of course don’t survive.
Secret after secret is unveiled. Along the way, tidbits of these secrets start to wear at her marriage and her relationship with her in-laws. In her research, Julia finds Sarah’s son who is living in Europe, only to discover he wasn’t aware of his mother’s past and is haunted and tormented by the knowledge he learns.
It’s mesmerizing and heart shattering at times, but so beautifully real and ‘important.’ Her adventure leads her to America and back again where she finds Sarah’s husband and discovers that she had committed suicide, staging her death because she couldn’t face the lies and inauthentic life anymore — Sarah had never revealed her past to her family and in that dark secret, her life had no meaning and she never felt fully free.
Although Sarah’s son is at first horrified by the knowledge of his mother’s haunting and shocking past, so much so that he forbids Julia to contact him again, he comes back to her after processing the magnitude of it, to learn more and to seek some kind of inner calm from any insight he can gain from Julia. Over time, this builds a bond between them until ultimately destiny brings them both to New York City, where they form a friendship. In this bond, they both begin to heal from the trauma of the events that have unfolded, together.
I LOVED this book! If you are French, it’s a must read. If you are Jewish, it’s a must read. If you care about humanity, it’s a must read. If you are interested in history, it’s a must read. If you want to learn the truth about what happened in 1942, as told through a novel, it’s a must read. Author Tatiana de Rosnay notes that the novel is not a historical work and has no intention of being one. She asserts that it is her tribute to the children of the Vel’ d’Hiv,’ the children who never came back and the ones who survived to tell.
A quote from the book:
My God! What is this country doing to me? Because it has rejected me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life. — Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise (1942).